Do you have what it takes to be a published writer? Recently, Lynne Kelly sold her first book, Chained, which will be published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. During our conversation we chatted about how she got the idea for her new book, what her revision process was and how she got to the final “yes”.
Where did you grow up?
I was born in Galesburg, Illinois, but my family moved here to Houston when I was really young, and I grew up in the Spring Branch area.
What inspired you to become a writer?
I’ve always loved reading, and as a mom and a teacher (I taught special ed. resource in Spring ISD), I loved finding great children’s literature to share with my daughter and students. But it wasn’t until I got the idea for Chained that I was inspired to write. It wasn’t easy to turn the idea into a good story, but once I started writing I found that I really enjoyed it, so I was willing to learn everything I could about the writing process in order to create something people might really want to read.
Tell us about CHAINED. How did you get the idea?
The idea started when I was at a presentation and heard the tale "Don’t Be Like The Elephant," about how a small rope or chain can hold a full-grown elephant because once they give up trying to break free, they never try again. It’s meant to be an example of learned helplessness or self-limiting behavior, but I got the idea then to write a picture book about a captive elephant. I had no idea at the time it would grow into the novel that it is now. The very first version was horrific–other than the elephant (who talked), there was a talking ostrich, a train, a monkey–and I’m so thankful no one ever saw it. At some point when I was writing the idea hit me, "Maybe this needs to be the elephant’s story," and I wrote a picture book manuscript about a captive elephant that breaks free and returns to his home. After taking it to a couple of critique groups some people noticed that the story needed to be told as a novel, not as a picture book. At the time I couldn’t imagine writing it as a novel, but now I can’t imagine it any other way. So little by little I worked on expanding the story into a novel, with lots of revisions along the way, changing from third person to first person point of view, past tense to present tense, the elephant from a boy to a girl, and more revisions.
There have been so many versions of the story; it’s unrecognizable from the first picture book draft, although you’ll still see that big elephant held by the same small chain that held her as a newly-captured calf.
What’s your writing routine?
My work schedule as a sign language interpreter varies a lot, and that can be good and bad. I don’t have a day-to-day routine since I have a different schedule each day, but it’s also really flexible. When I’m away from home I often have a laptop with me so I can work on my writing during a lunch break or other downtime. And I always have a notepad and pens in my bag for when I find some time to write but I’m not near a computer. When I am at home during the day, I’m distracted by normal things like housecleaning, TV, and the Internet, so I have to just decide to sit and write for a certain amount of time, then I’ll get on the Internet for a while or get up and do something around the house before continuing to write again. When I’m starting a new chapter or working on a scene I’m having a problem with, for some reason I do better with a pen and paper instead of the computer. It’s easier to let the words flow that way and keep out that internal editor that needs to stay quiet until revision time. I like to do a lot of free writing on paper, then pick out what I want to include in the chapter or scene. Sometimes even for a sentence, I’ll get the paper and pen and write the sentence as many ways as I can, then look at everything I scribbled down to find the best version.
Did you have anyone read your manuscript before you sent it off?
Sure, I was really lucky to find a couple of awesome critique groups, so several people had seen it a chapter at a time, and a few of them read the full manuscript when it was all finished. Then I got an amazing professional critique from author Uma Krishnaswami and used her feedback to revise again before I submitted to agents.
How did you find your agent?
I talked to people who had agents and did a lot of research online, and then queried agents who I thought would be a good match for me. (The sites agentquery.com, Casey McCormick’s blog Literary Rambles, and the Verla Kay message boards were especially helpful.) Also, my friend Monica Vavra had signed with Joanna Stampfel-Volpe a few months before, and I knew she really loved her, so she was one of the agents I queried when I was ready to submit. The day I queried her she asked to see my first 30 pages. A couple months later she emailed to tell me she really liked what she’d read so far and asked to see the whole thing if I hadn’t found representation yet. I let her know that I hadn’t, but was expecting a call from another interested agent later in the week. She read the rest of the novel by the next day and set up a phone call to discuss representation.
And then she sold Chained!
Yes! After I did a few more revisions, she submitted the manuscript to several fantastic editors, and about a month later sold the book at auction to Farrar, Straus, & Giroux. My editor, Margaret Ferguson, has been with Farrar, Straus & Giroux for 30 years, and now runs her own imprint, Margaret Ferguson Books, which launches next year. I’m really excited to be working with such a successful editor and being one of the authors under the new imprint.
What project are you working on now?
Something completely different– a young adult novel called Reasons For Leaving, about a girl who’s afraid to leave home but is compelled to go on a road trip from Houston to East Texas to find a missing friend. It has some mystery to it, and I hope readers will enjoy its humor too.
You can read more about Lynne and her critique group on the blog http://willwrite4cake.blogspot.com/.
Lynne’s book Chained will be available soon from your favorite local bookstore. Be sure to look for it!
This interview appeared originally in the July 2010 edition of The Houston Banner.